Beyond Petroleum? Inside the BP Archive

By Todd Olive, GLOBUS Editor in Chief

The author would like to thank the BP Archive team for hosting us.

Last term, GLOBUS expressed concern regarding the involvement of BP as a sponsor of a campus panel event hosted by Warwick PPE Society and run by ‘slow news’ startup Tortoise Media, arranged to consider the question ‘Should we stop using fossil fuels altogether?’. This concern centred around the dangers of involving a multinational fossil fuel company in discussions about the future of their own industry – a subject on which such entities clearly have a vested interest. In response, the event’s organisers undertook to ensure that the event’s marketing would include references to BP’s history as a petroleum company, and to concerns regarding climate denialism – as well as inviting this correspondent to join the panel and actively share concerns.

Of more interest, perhaps, was a conversation this correspondent was fortunate to have with Peter Mather, BP’s Head of UK & European operations, and Ian Duffy, BP’s UK Head of Communications. Our discussion ranged from BP’s climate trajectory more widely, to the objections we had raised to their involvement – and, ultimately, to the BP Archive. Two weeks earlier – a startling coincidence of timing – GLOBUS had published something of an exposé by Lucy Jordan, our Deputy Editor, highlighting the Archive as the centre of much ire and protest over the years since its relocation to the Warwick campus in 1993.

While nothing of any great consequence was said by either side prior to the panel, this correspondent was surprised to subsequently be invited to visit the Archive to discuss its purpose and students’ views – and, it must be said, a little suspicious: as an organisation, we are acutely aware that the very same accusations of greenwash platforming that we levelled against Tortoise’s panel event might be levelled at ourselves for this exploration. In the interests of uncovering the perspectives of the Archive team on accusations and suspicions levelled at the Archive by students and the wider Warwick community, however, the Editorial Board elected to take up the invitation. We report below the abridged findings of our visit – with our commentary below.

What’s the Archive for?
The Archive was established in 1921 to hold ‘social artefacts’, originally accumulated by the distributed operations that ultimately merged, or were acquired, to ultimately form BP as we know it today. For clarity, according to the archivist’s best estimate, this includes around a million individual items, including photographs [primarily of areas and sites of interest close to BP facilities], press releases, marketing artefacts [such as retail and advertising posters], and other assorted ‘general artefacts’. Its primary function is to service internal enquiries from other BP departments, though its records are available for supervised use by researchers, students, and the public, and shared with other institutions on a case-by-case basis.

How did the Archive’s Warwick home come to be?
Originally, an open tender was issued, inviting proposals from organisations seeking to host the Archive. Of these tenders, the universities of Reading, Cambridge, and Warwick were taken forward – with Warwick ultimately being chosen to include the Archive in the Modern Records Centre, housed in the Library Extension. In return for financial contribution to the Centre’s original construction, and ongoing payments of service charges for utilities, BP pays no rent for the facility.

What subject matter does the Archive cover? How much is open to the public?
As the Archive originally existed primarily to answer internal queries from BP departments, including marketing and legal issues, material held largely relates to the history of BP and its subsidiaries: in the words of the Archive’s manager, the team seeks “stuff that tells the stories”. Our team was admittedly impressed by some of the exhibits we were shown: photographs of Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s palace from 1962 (Sheik Al Nahyan ruled Abu Dhabi from 1928 to 1966), photographs of the Persepolis from circa 1925-26, and photographs of Palmyra, Iraq, taken by the expedition of Professor De Bockh in circa 1924-25 – made all the more valuable by the recent destruction of much of the ancient city by the Islamic State in 2015. Nearly fifty years of magazines produced by the company sat on a set of shelves behind the Archive team during our discussions.

The matter of what items are available for viewing goes right to the heart of a widely-held suspicion: that the Archive contains sensitive material documenting efforts to prevent widespread public acknowledgement of the climate change threat, and of mothballed renewable energy projects from the 1970’s – exacerbated by the fact that items retained from after 1954 aren’t made available for public viewing. The team explained that the vast majority of these post-’54 materials have yet to be catalogued and sorted; efforts to date by the three-strong team have apparently focussed on trying to make the pre-’54 collection “comprehensive”, to line up with the release of a book documenting the history of BP to 1954 – as well as to accommodate the primary focus of public enquiries, which have largely been for pre-1954 material. We were assured that the long-term plan is for all items to ultimately be made available.

There are too many ways of looking at this set of assertions for us to document here. On the one hand, the argument that a methodological approach to cataloguing the Archive is best seems quite reasonable – on the other, one can’t help but wonder if there’s a reason why the Archive team is only three-strong. Perhaps there’s something lurking that BP doesn’t want to be found in a hurry?

To deal with the elephant in the room, we addressed the question directly to the Archive manager – does the Archive contain material along the lines of what’s suspected? – and to his credit, the answer neither sounded nor felt like a sinister corporate cover-up: there’s no reason to even expect that records regarding climate change or renewables would have yet reached the Archive. Why? It exists to hold ‘dead records’ that tell the company’s history: given these are such live issues, there’s no reason why communications, research, or project records under these headings would have left their ‘home’ departments. For that matter, the records might more likely have been sold off with the projects they related to – or, simply, destroyed (if you were a multinational corporation whose products have been responsible for decades of damaging greenhouse gas emissions, would you want the evidence lying around for archivists and researchers to find?). As if to push the point home, the archivist herself, who has been working at the facility for twenty years, assured us that she had never found anything along these lines…

How can the Archive be accessed?
The Archive maintains an online catalogue of its items, which can be accessed with a username and password issued on request to the team at As part of this process, the team request information about the subject of interest – apparently, with the aim of aiding interested parties in finding artefacts of interest. Subsequently, parties are asked to complete an application to gain access to materials of interest – which are reviewed and subsequently granted or approved. Due to time constraints, we were unable to cover in any detail precise numbers of applications approved and denied, and the reasons involved – though we will be reaching out to the Archive team for details, and will issue a revision to this article should we receive a useful response.

Why are we only hearing this now?
In conversation with the Archive team, this correspondent was surprised to hear that this represents the first time that a university interest group has sat down with the team and discussed student perceptions. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the entire team seemed surprised that students generally perceive the Archive as an opaque, mysterious, or – in some cases – even sinister facility: the embodiment of an irresponsible, even dangerous, ultra-capitalist firm seeking to exploit the global commons for the gain of the financial elite, at the expense of our shared home.

It was to our further surprise to learn that the Archive is actually actively used in a module run by Warwick’s History department – HI3J1: Empire and Oil, which employs materials sourced from the Archive as a core part of its curriculum – as well as by students more widely, including dissertation authors. Examples of prior topics, kindly provided by the Archive, include:

  • In what ways did the socio-technical properties of oil shape the formation of an oil labour regime in Iran?
  • To what extent did nomadic groups, oil workers, and the Iranian government generate vulnerability in the Iranian oil industry?
  • What does the response to the 1951 nationalisation crisis reveal about the interaction between the oil company and the British state?
  • How the urban form of the oil cities of Khuzistan informed everyday life, and how acts of subversion manifested in the planned environments of the town and the oil industry itself.

Immediately following our visit to the Archive, the Editors convened to discuss how our views had changed. Lucy Jordan, Deputy Editor, has subsequently outlined some thoughts in writing:

“Entering the meeting as the self-proclaimed ‘sceptic’ of the Archive, as the writer of ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’, it was clear that I required the most persuasion in accepting the archive’s campus home.

On the everyday running of the archive, in many ways I was turned. This I feel can be partially attributed to simply putting a human face to the institution in the form of three well-meaning archivists. They seemed, mostly, unaware of the Archive’s contentious reputation; it soon became clear they simply wished to enable other people to gain as much from the Archive’s contents as they themselves did.

Furthermore, as an Archive in and of itself, it is difficult to deny the cultural and historical saliency of many of the documents and artefacts it holds. It was evident that the Archive acted as a separate operating entity to the central corporation of BP, which waylaid suspicions of an ulterior motive in its purpose, as I had previously speculated. Rather, as they stated, it held the “dead” stuff – the stuff that BP no longer really used, but simply felt irresponsible to throw away. In this sense, the Archive is no detriment to our campus, and can be argued a valuable resource for researchers.

However – there is a sticking point. In my view, the Archive, no matter how far removed from its parent, cannot be siphoned off from the company itself. If one is dissenting of BP’s continuing practices and strategy, then by extension this must include the Archive. Although it is clear that both could exist apart from the other, they do not. Therefore, they simply cannot be treated as such.

Further yet, many of the artefacts within the archive are of national importance. Its rich array of Middle Eastern history, for example, is becoming ever more poignant and significant with continuing unrest in the region. However, one cannot overlook the glaring question that is repeatedly posed more widely to British historical institutions: if these pieces are of such stated national importance, why are they retained here? Is it right for a country to have their history “on loan” from a West Midlands storage facility?

I ultimately, cannot answer such questions. That would require a much deeper understanding of property, law, and colonial reparations – none of which I have. However, I still require more convincing. There is an irony in a company attempting to provide educational resources for young generations, whilst simultaneously impinging upon their right to a prosperous, healthy future. Direct change from the archive is unlikely to address this.”

There are some wide issues here that cannot be ignored. The question, perhaps, of neocolonialism – in the retention by BP of historical artefacts that, it might be argued, should be held by the states from which they came – is a salient one, particularly given ongoing debate about international inequality and restorative justice. In the case of some Middle Eastern nations, it’s perhaps worth asking whether original photographs from as far back as the 1920’s would be truly ‘safe’ in the midst of ongoing civil unrest – but the question of the principle remains. Whether this outweighs the indivisible fact that many of these artefacts have been produced directly or indirectly by BP and its subsidiaries is a debate too lengthy to have here, and distinguishes this case from that of – say – the Koh-i-Noor, an Indian diamond retained by the UK as part of the Crown Jewels.

Next up, there’s the question of what’s in the Archive: a question whose answer, this correspondent firmly believes, is a matter of trust. The answers given by the Archive team seemed genuine, logical, and were internally consistent; short of the inherent nature of their employment by BP, there appears no rational reason to doubt their assertions that the material that is suspected of being held in the Archive is not, in fact, there. If we trust their word as individuals of good character, then there’s no inherent internal reason why the Archive, in and of itself, is at all problematic in ethical terms. If we take a cynical approach to the fact that they are, at the end of the day, employees of BP, beholden to the wishes of their employer – or, indeed, to the fact that only three archivists are funded by the company, restricting how much cataloguing can be achieved – then perhaps we will never be sure, without independent verification of the Archive’s contents. On balance, this correspondent finds the argument that sensitive documents related to renewables or denialism would be retained by active departments or destroyed convincing: if GLOBUS was a multinational petroleum producer, this correspondent would certainly not authorise documents of such a sensitive nature being moved outside of Head Office.

The question of the wider provenance of the Archive, and its compatibility with the university’s stated commitments and beliefs regarding the Climate Emergency, fossil fuels, and carbon emissions, is much thornier. Lucy is quite correct to say that, while in and of itself the Archive poses no ethical questions, it is ultimately the BP Archive – which owes its raison d’être to the company, and indeed is wholly funded by it: which, to draw out the implicit assumption that’s really behind this point, ultimately means that it exists due to revenues derived from the sale of fossil fuels.

There are two ways that this correspondent can see to conclude this question – and, indeed, draw together this commentary on the presence of the Archive on our campus. The first of these is visceral: in many ways, it feels wrong that part of a corporation that has done so much to harm our planet should have a place in a community that seeks progress and inclusivity – no matter what the purpose of that place should be. The second is more pragmatic. While in many ways the Archive has different goals, how much does it differ from Norway’s sovereign wealth management fund, which takes revenue from state-owned oil production, and invests in ways that seek to promote human rights, sound corporate governance, and the protection of the environment – are both organisations not seeking to produce something of social benefit from the proceeds of something that causes social harm? Is it impossible for endeavours of this kind – a category that extends far beyond the bounds of fossil fuel-funded initiatives – to be considered a force for good, or does the weight of harm in this case outweigh the potential gain from the preservation of social and cultural heritage?

This is a question that, by far, this correspondent is not qualified to answer – so we’ll leave it to our community. We hope that the endeavour we’ve reported here is of value; if you, the reader, take one thing away from this piece, this correspondent would ask you to remember this: these questions go far beyond petroleum – and they always will.

Header image: Photo by Rache P via flickr under CC BY-ND 2.0

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